“The Reign of the Na’vi IV”

The humans of Yes, if this weekend at the box office were a movie, it would be a less than super-imaginative sequel. Once again, “Avatar” ruled at the U.S. box office. As seen on the mighty weekly chart of Box Office Mojo, James Cameron‘s mythic, politically pointed, science fiction adventure once again took the crown with an estimated $48.5 million for Fox. That’s a drop of only 29.2% in its fourth box office weekend, following a huge and long prior holiday weekend. No doubt helped out by those premium 3-D and Imax ticket prices, it also enjoyed the nation’s highest per screen average at about $14,173. In the relatively short time I’ve been doing this, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that happen on a movie’s fourth week.

As reckoned by the Mojo, “Avatar” is the now the #1 domestic moneymaker for 2009 and the #7 cinematic cash cow of all time, with a very definite bullet considering its signs of considerable ongoing strength. In others words, this is a movie people actually enjoy, not merely tolerate because it offers enough explosions to distract them for a couple of hours.

On the other hand, just to keep things in perspective, adjusted for inflation, “Avatar” is still a 56 steps down from the all-time ticket seller, “Gone With the Wind.” On the other hand, lest James Cameron should be threatened by any momentary bouts of untoward humility, at least in terms of raw cash he really is box office king of the world right now. “Avatar” is already the #2 grosser of all time at $1.331 billion, $500 million and change behind “Titanic” — written and directed by you-know-who. Can I still wish Cameron had brought in a competent wordsmith/dramaturg to smooth out the very rough edges on both films?

As for the second and third place positions, we had another photo-finish in which Warner’s “Sherlock Holmes” narrowly edged out Fox’s “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel” by a rodent hair. The world’s greatest literary detective brought in just a hair more than an estimated $16.6 million and the musically inclined woodland creatures managed an estimated $16.3 million. With the holiday weekends at an end, they both exhibited more typical drops for typical Hollywood product, with “Holmes” dropping by 54.6% and “Chipmunks” by 53.7%.

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Food to defeat flesh at the box office

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

It’s going to be a messy weekend at multiplexes this weekend. Raining food items in 3-D are likely to rule the weekend against¬†a sex-heavy horror comedy with a literally man-eating lead, a food-industry investigation gone badly awry, and the semi-obligatory poorly reviewed rom-com and/or rom-drom.

Redefining the term “splatter” for an all-ages audience is “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.” The Sony-made entry looks to combine the proven appeal of family-friendly animated comedies, 3-D (and 3-D Imax), and adaptations of popular books to make what THR‘s Carl DiOrio guesses will be roughly $25-30 million. Add to that the film’s fairly stellar critical appeal, with most critics echoing the sunny assessment of our own David Medsker with an 89% Rotten Tomatoes “Fresh” rating, and you get a feature with extremely wide appeal. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this one go well over the $30 million mark. (I should add, however, that the “Top Critics” rating is a considerably more modest, but still good, 71% as of this writing. However, with only seven reviews included, that seems like a less a fair sampling.)

Likely to come in a distant second is the R-rated, youth oriented sexy horror comedy from Fox, “Jennifer’s Body.” Variety doesn’t hazard a guess this week, but THR/DiOrio is saying to expect a gross in the “low-teen millions” and that seems reasonable. Though for whatever sick reason audiences have been turning up their noses even at very strong horror films inflected with humor like “Drag Me to Hell,” this film benefits from the current”Transformers”-based star power of flavor of the month Megan Fox. Directed by Karyn Kusama and written by the ballyhoed Diablo Cody, this mixture of blood, sex, and quips is generating little “Juno“-based critical afterglow and some anti-Cody backlash with a mere 33% “fresh” rating. That’s not so surprising given that a lot of critics already had mixed feelings about former exotic dancer’s sometimes cutesy dialogue in last year’s sleeper hit. Given the cussedness of young audiences lately, I wouldn’t be surprised if this would be the film to overcome the horror-comedy jinx and over-perform by a few million this weekend. I think the youngsters enjoy driving critics mad.

Matt Damon in
And then we have this week’s token major release for discerning grown-ups, “The Informant!“.¬† A fact-based comedy about a borderline delusional executive who threw a huge monkey wrench into an FBI price-fixing investigation of food giant Archer Daniels Midland, it’s the latest from the very prolific Steven Soderbergh. In the past, the onetime “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” wunderkind has had success with fact based material with the unassuming 2000 box office hit, “Erin Brockovich.” This film is similarly star-driven, though it remains to be seen if a pudged-up Matt Damon wearing a doofy mustache will have the same appeal as Julia Roberts in a push-up bra.

With an okay 67% RT rating, the critical chorus here is marked by notes of disharmony. Sometimes that’s actually the sign of a truly interesting movie, but rarely is it the mark of an instant hit, though the hope is still for a double-digit millions opening weekend and some “legs.” Damon is getting very good reviews for his lead performance, so a Best Actor Oscar nomination is definitely not out of the question, which could help this movie get some kind of second life if it does disappoint this weekend.

Bringing up the rear is “Love Happens,” which has one of those titles that pretty much dares critics to come up with clever and, in this case, potentially scatological, insults. I didn’t see anyone actually take the bait this time, though the film did receive a not unfecal 20% RT rating. Also, there seems to be some genuine disagreement about whether or not this film is really a comedy or more of a soapy drama, which is usually not a good sign. The appeal of Aaron Eckhardt — still an underrated actor — and Jennifer Aniston, not my choice for the actress of her generation, can only do so much. Fortunately for the producers, the film had a low enough budget that even a single digit opening weekend can mean they’ll eventually recoup their money and perhaps make a profit. Maybe.

Finally, as Oscar season approaches, we’re starting to see more limited releases of interest. This one to watch this week is the new film from writer-director Jane Campion of “The Piano.” Featuring Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw, “Bright Star” is a well-reviewed romantic period drama/biopic about poet John Keats and the literal girl next door. Not that it’s a huge category, but I’m betting this will be the big date movie for English majors of 2009. All that, and no naked Harvey Keitel. Yay.

  

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Is the “Funny People” box office take half full or half empty?

Like so many things in life, the meaning of the weekend gross for the Judd Apatow/Adam Sandler “serious comedy,” “Funny People,” is a matter of perspective. On the more cheerful side, we have the trades, which typically enough are accentuating the positive, noting that the somewhat risky project, at least by modern mainstream film standards, was actually #1 at the box office, even if the amount it took the lead by was less than mega-spectacular.

The Hollywood Reporter (actually the AP as carried by THR) thinks that Judd Apatow is living in the best of all possible box office worlds:

Movie audiences have taken a liking to Adam Sandler’s more serious side…[“Funny People”] grabbed the top spot at the weekend boxoffice with a $23.4 million debut.

Variety takes a more measured, but still somewhat upbeat, tone:

Adam Sandler’s “Funny People” has topped a moderate weekend box office with $23.4 million at 3,008 playdates.

Nikki Finke, however, has a different way of seeing things. Here’s her headline:

‘Funny People’ No Laughing Matter; Opens To Lousy $8.6M Fri And Worse $7.4M Sat For Disappointing $23.4M Weekend

La Finke goes on to point out that Universal has been lowering expectations from Sandler’s usual $30-$40 million openers to a more modest $25 million, and fell a bit short of that.

Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman, and Adam Sandler kvetch over turkey It really does come down to your frame of reference. In my weekend preview post, I mentioned the Sally Field/Tom Hanks starring “Punchline,” which I think is a better point of comparison than any particular Apatow or Adam Sandler film, including 2002’s “Punch-Drunk Love,” simply because of the subject matter, the more-serious-than-you-might-expect approach, and the level of star power. That movie got similarly mixed reviews but was one of 1988’s lowest grossing films, despite the presence of two bankable stars. Two small differences: one had laughs, the other doesn’t, and Sally Field was not ever thought of as a great comedian, “The Flying Nun” notwithstanding.

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